Pennsylvania: Appellate—Third Circuit Affirms District Court Decision in FMLA Case

07/05/19

Rawle & Henderson LLP recently obtained a favorable order from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirming a District Court summary judgment for our client in a Family Medical Leave Act case.

In this matter, the employee was employed by Rawle & Henderson LLP’s client, an EMS organization, as a paramedic and training director.  On June 9, 2013, while on vacation, she was injured in a mountain bike accident and suffered a dislocated hip and a concussion.  She requested and was granted leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to recuperate from her injuries.  Her leave was scheduled to run from June 12, 2013, to July 29, 2013.

In November 2011, 20 months before her accident, without our client’s knowledge, the employee set up a side business which provided training services such as CPR certification classes similar to those provided by our client.  When our client learned that the employee had set up a competing business without its knowledge, she was required to sign a non-competition agreement.  The agreement provided, among other things, that employee would not offer training programs or Automated External Defibrillation sales to the client’s customers within a 75-mile radius of the client’s headquarters.

Unbeknownst to our client, employee began violating the non-competition agreement six days after it was signed.  In early July 2015, while the employee was on FMLA leave, it was reported to our client that she had conducted CPR training through her company at Pennsylvania State University and had used our client’s CPR certification cards in the training session.  That was a violation of the non-competition agreement.

In March 2012, 16 months before the accident, our client sustained water damage in its facility and submitted a property damage claim to its insurance carrier.  Among the damaged items was a collection of CPR training manikins.  The employee was responsible for identifying damaged items in the training department and preparing a list of those items.  The list was submitted to the insurer in support of its first-party claim.  During that process, the employee untruthfully told our client’s executive director that she had given the manikins to a friend in Maryland who used them for target practice at his shooting range and that they had ultimately been destroyed.  In reality, she had taken the manikins home, stored them there, and planned to use them in her competing business.

On July 10, 2013, faced with this information, our client’s general counsel sent a letter to the employee requesting that she explain “(1) how and where [the damaged manikins] were disposed of, and [identify] any witnesses to the disposition of the items and (2) inform me as to whether [her company] conducted a CPR training program at Penn State University in February of 2013.”  The employee was given 10 days to respond to the inquiry.  On July 21, 2013, one day after that deadline, the employee sent a letter stating only that she intended to retain counsel.  She did not address any of the inquiries in the letter.  Because of her failure to respond to the letter in any meaningful way, her employment was terminated while she was on FMLA leave.

The employee brought suit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania alleging that our client had “interfered” with her FMLA leave in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1) and had retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2).  The retaliation claim was later withdrawn.

The district court entered summary judgment in favor of our client on the grounds that the employee’s termination was unrelated to her exercise of FMLA rights and, therefore, there was no “interference” with her FMLA rights in violation of the Act.

In an opinion and order dated May 24, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.  The court held that there were no disputed issues of fact as to the reasons for the employee’s termination.  She was terminated because she did not respond to the letter requesting information about her violation of the non-competition agreement and her failure to dispose of the water-damaged manikins. The court held that “the FMLA does not protect an employee from discipline for any reason while she is on leave—rather . . . it protects her only from discharge because she requests or takes FMLA leave.”

On appeal, the employee attempted to circumvent this principle by arguing that the demand for an explanatory letter was a “performance requirement” that she could not meet, and that our client knew she could not meet, due to her closed head injury.  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument holding that “[client’s] one-time, discrete inquiry which was unrelated to her exercise of FMLA rights does not constitute FMLA interference.”